Random Readings 4

In the Poetics, Aristotle discusses his observations on the literary forms of his day. He breaks them down into three main types: the tragedy, the comedy, and the epic. Aristotle deals mostly with tragedy and comedy, since he sees them as the two extremes of artistic representation. A tragedy, he argues, depicts men as being more noble than they really are, whereas a comedy depicts them as being less noble than they really are. He discusses also the origins of ‘poetry,’ which he ascribes to an innate propensity to imitation in people, and also an instinct for rhythm. His view of literature is a very static one; he states that, concerning its development, tragedy “found its natural form and there it stopped.” He describes the development of these literary forms up to his own time, but foresaw no future development.

In his discussion of the nature of the tragic form, which he describes as an “imitation of an action,” Aristotle outlines six parts of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. He then goes deeper and describes the elements of plot, saying that every good plot should have three characteristics: a reversal of the situation, which is termed peripeteia; recognition scenes; and a “scene of suffering.” When discussing spectacle, Aristotle reveals himself to be a fan of special effects, although, as with many critics of the modern cinema, he acknowledges that great special effects can’t make up for a weak plot, for “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.”

Aristotle continues, detailing the aspects of the proper structure of a tragedy, outlining characteristics that seem like common sense today: a play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it should be neither too short nor too long; and should contain no arbitrary actions. This last characteristic he describes as unity, in which every part must be necessary to the whole work; there should be no extraneous scenes. He says that the action following every point in the plot should be determined by probability or necessity, and not by the whim or desperation of the writer. Aristotle maintains that drama should be believable, even going so far as to suggest using real people’s names to lend a sense of realism, but he also holds that a writer should always go for the “probable impossibility” which follows the story’s internal rules, rather than the “improbable possibility” which stretches credibility beyond what the audience will accept.

From his many descriptions and examples, Aristotle seems to be writing the Poetics because he is depressed by all the badly-done shows out there, as well as the paucity of good ones, which shows that, even after 23 centuries, some things never change.



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